At the end of January 2011, I got a stamp on my passport at Incheon Airport outside of Seoul, South Korea.
Freshly 24, I had just spent a year teaching English in the Korean capital.
Next stop: Beijing, on the way to Lanzhou, an industrial town in the center of China where I’d celebrate the Spring Festival with my friend and his family.
It was the start of the Big Trip.
Though I didn’t set out with a firm itinerary, the journey ended up being a month in China, then a little under six months in Nepal and India. From there I flew to Frankfurt, where I spent three months couchsurfing, hitch-hiking, and otherwise tramping across Europe.
It was a trip that changed my life.
Here are a few of the American habits that I had to lose to make it all the way.
1. Needing a comfortable bed to sleep in.
Growing up in relative wealth in the upper Midwest, I slept in queen beds through high school and into college, not downgrading to a full until I got to Seoul.
Then I found myself on the road — sleeping on trains, in chairs at the bus station, on floors, and in a variety of tiny beds. Since I’m 6’3”, the five-foot beds that I sometimes folded myself in in Asia were quite the sleeping area.
On one memorable occasion, my sister and I were trekking up to Tilicho Lake on the Annapurna Circuit, which set a reported 16,237 feet above sea level. Needless to say, it was freezing cold out, and the walls of the room of the hostel-y basecamp that we were staying in didn’t quite meet the roof, leaving a six-inch gap that allowed snow to blow into our room throughout the night. My sibling and I had to survival-cuddle through the night.
It was nuts.
After all that madness, I developed such a tolerance for suboptimal slumber that I can pass out just about anywhere.
Sandra Jigme Chokyi Drukpa
Buses are a constant source of joy.
2. Needing space.
My hometown in Illinois has about 150,000 people. My college town, also in Illinois, has 90,000.
Then I got to Seoul: metro population of 25 million. Travelled to Tokyo: 36 million. Shanghai: New Delhi: 16 million. Istanbul: 14 million. London: 13 million.
From spending time in all those megacities, I grew much more comfortable with standing cheek-to-jowl with people on subway cars, crammed shoulder to shoulder on public buses. And there’s nothing quite like train stations in Delhi to teach a deferential Midwestern boy to assert himself in a crowd — when lines aren’t a part of a country’s culture, it’s up to the would-be ticket buyer to get facetime with the teller.
A good skill when you live in New York.
3. Needing air conditioning.
Air conditioning is an American invention. Historians argue that it’s the reason the South and the Southwest are inhabited with the density they are today — would 2 million people live in Houston and 1.4 million live in San Antonio if they had to sweat through Texan summers?
But when you’re backpacking through Asia and Europe, air conditioning is not nearly the constant that it is here in the US. I remember being loopy with heat in Amritsar, India, the home of the Golden Temple and the center of the Sikh Faith. This was in the dead of the Indian summer, and the temp had to be near 100° during the day. I almost died. Not really, but it felt like it.
I came to tolerate, and even enjoy, the heat. Subsequent yoga classes have taught me that the summer is when our bodies are at their loosest, and there’s something about that loss of tension that’s quite enjoyable. Plus when you’re without air conditioning in the place you’re staying, you get more acclimated to the heat.
While people might think it’s crazy, in the three summers I’ve had in New York, I haven’t had an air conditioner. I just rely on fans when it gets hot out.
Hard to avoid conversations when you look way different.
4. Needing to avoid strangers.
I grew up with a lot of Stranger Danger: ‘don’t talk to anyone you don’t know, kids’, my eight-year-old self was told, ‘or they will rob and/or kidnap you.’
Coupled with an introvert streak, one too many games of Magic: the Gathering in my early youth, and the fact that I went to college with my best friends from 9th grade, talking to strangers was super intimidating for me in my early 20s.
Then I got out into the world. Started hosting Couchsurfers. Had to befriend my fellow teachers in Seoul to not suffer from unbearable isolation in a foreign country. Hung out with different varieties of weirdos that frequent the world’s supply of hostels. Started doing lots of hitchhiking, making conversation in my (charmingly?) broken German.
Now talking to strangers doesn’t make my heart jump into my throat and my stomach fall to my feet. And aside from people I’ve worked with, it’s how I’ve made just about all my friends in New York.
5. Needing to convince everybody of my viewpoint.
Perhaps I am exceptionally annoying, but 16 years of American education taught me that I needed to prove myself to my peers and my teachers by way of making a case for my point of view all the time. And unfortunately for my friends and the girls I dated growing up, being right was a favoured pastime within my social life as well.
But with all that time abroad, I learned a little bit more about when to defer and when to simply hold my tongue. A backpacker buddy and I once got a ride from Prague to Brussels with a guy from Egypt who had a keen interest in religious politics, at one point declaring that “Israel was a cancer in the Arab world that needed to be removed.” The angry atheist that I was at age 21 would have wanted to make the case for secular pluralism, but the backpacker I was at age 23 knew it better to let that hate speech slide.
Sometimes you just need to get a ride.
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